(STATS) - Tre Roberson, Marshaun Coprich and Carson Wentz were the headliners when North Dakota State and Illinois State last went head-to-head in the 2014 FCS championship game.
Those stars and many others are no longer playing in this series, but that doesn't mean either side is dismissing the Bison's thrilling 29-27 win that day in preparation for Saturday's Missouri Valley Football Conference showdown in Fargo.
"We're looking at that game a lot," North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman confessed. "I don't care if Roberson and Coprich were in the game - (the Redbirds) did a great job against our defense and they did a really good job defending our offense.
"We also know that they have shared the league title with us the past two seasons and that's why this is such a huge game because this is a team that's perennially one of the best teams in the league."
Jake Kolbe, who has since replaced Roberson as Illinois State's starting quarterback, is expected to play after a sore throwing shoulder kept him sidelined for most of the first half last weekend. The 18th-ranked Redbirds (2-2, 0-1) tried to get by without him at Indiana State, but coach Brock Spack had to get the sophomore in the game after his team fell behind.
Kolbe nearly led the Redbirds back from a 24-7 deficit in the second half, completing 25 of 32 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns. He was pushing them toward a game-winning score before Indiana State's sack and forced fumble clinched a 34-31 win.
"Obviously, you know, the quarterback is what drives everything and (Kolbe) has thrown the ball well," Spack said. "I was surprised with how well he did throw the ball last week - I didn't think he'd throw the ball like that. He's tough.
"He's going to be a really good player before he leaves here."
The Redbirds, who hope to avoid their first three-game losing streak since 2008 - before Spack's arrival - have used a committee approach to replace Coprich in the backfield. Sophomore George Moreira (240 yards, three TDs) is leading the way, but Illinois State ranks eighth in the MVFC with 161.2 rushing yards per game.
Top-ranked NDSU allowed 450 passing yards in a 50-44 overtime win over Eastern Washington on Sept. 10 before tightening things up and surrendering just 231 total yards in an impressive 23-21 victory at FBS then-No. 13 Iowa on Sept. 17. The Bison, however, have lost one of the nation's top linebackers after Nick DeLuca underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.
Junior Matt Plank is the next man up for NDSU (3-0), which is going after a 23rd consecutive victory when coming off an open week in the regular season or playoffs.
Sophomore Easton Stick, 11-0 as a starter, has thrown for 575 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions while also rushing for 140 yards and a score in his first full season as Wentz's replacement under center. The Bison are also relying heavily on senior running back King Frazier, who has totaled 217 yards on 37 attempts while scoring a touchdown in all three games.
The Redbirds easily lead the MVFC in pass defense, allowing just 165.8 yards per game, but they dropped to fifth against the run (113.0) after letting the Sycamores gain 208 last weekend.
"I know not everyone wants to hear it, but we've got a lot of inexperience at some spots and it's rearing its ugly head sometimes in these tight games," Spack said. "The future of this team is going to be really good but I want to be good right now."
Spack's squad could endure more growing pains against an NDSU team that has won 50 of 54 home games since 2010. The Bison also have won four straight and six of the eight all-time meetings, including a 28-10 victory in the last regular-season matchup at the Fargodome in November 2013.
"This is why we play - for a chance to compete in the Missouri Valley Conference - and as everyone knows anybody can beat anybody on any given week," Klieman said. "The fact that Illinois State is coming off of a loss just ensures us that we're going to get their best game."
ACROSS THE MVFC=
Lance Lenoir seeks a Western Illinois record with his 34th consecutive game with a reception when the eighth-ranked Leathernecks try to stay unbeaten Saturday night at No. 15 South Dakota State (1-2) in the MVFC opener for both clubs.
Western (3-0) ended a seven-game skid in the series with a 30-24 double-overtime home win last season.
The 24th-ranked Sycamores (3-1, 1-0), who have not opened 2-0 in league play since 2011, put up 445 total yards last week but face a stiff test Saturday against a Missouri State team that leads the MVFC in total defense at 271.3 yards allowed per game.
The visiting Bears (2-1) are without starting quarterback Breck Ruddick, who has been suspended indefinitely while the school's office of student conduct investigates allegations of animal abuse.
No. 12 Northern Iowa (1-2) hopes to avoid dropping its fifth consecutive conference opener Saturday when it welcomes Southern Illinois (2-1). No. 20 Youngstown State (2-1), meanwhile, will try to move to 3-0 at home against South Dakota (1-2).